David Henry Hwang was born on August 11, 1957, in San Gabriel, a suburb of Los Angeles. His father, Henry Y. Hwang, grew up in Shanghai, China, and in the 1970’s founded the Far East National Bank, the first Asian American-owned national bank in the United States. David’s mother, Dorothy Hwang, born in southeast China and raised in the Philippines, was a talented pianist who encouraged her son to play the violin. Although David’s mother and sister became classical musicians, he opted for jazz and played in an all-Asian rock band during college. He even composed an “Oriental riff” for his play Face Value (1993).
Educated in an elite preparatory school, Hwang was always interested in words. He was on the school’s debate team and was encouraged by his parents to become a lawyer. Hwang’s family was actively involved in the “born again” Evangelical Christian Church, a fact bitterly satirized in his play Family Devotions (1981). He grew up feeling that he should date only Chinese girls and for a few years was married to Ophelia Chong, a Chinese Canadian artist. His later plays, such as M. Butterfly (1988), Bondage (1992), and Face Value, use themes of interracial love and rebellion against traditional images and expectations. He has said that there was always a part of him that did things that were not expected of him. In the early 1990’s, he began living with Caucasian actress Kathryn Layng in Los Angeles, whom he married in 1993. The couple resides with their children in New York City. Hwang promotes in his work the idea of cultures existing harmoniously side by side, and he believes that children of mixed heritage represent the world’s future.
At Stanford University, John L’Heurex, a novelist and creative-writing instructor, encouraged Hwang to pursue playwriting. Another of Hwang’s early formative influences was the 1978 Padua Hills Playwrights Festival workshop, where he studied under Sam Shepard, an explosive playwright whose work combines human interaction with mythmaking and to whom Hwang dedicated Family Devotions. His play F.O.B. (1978) was staged Off-Broadway and was developed for the Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and the New York Shakespeare Festival. As critic Douglas Street pointed out, F.O.B. is American in style and Asian in its concerns. It explores issues to which Hwang has returned frequently in his writing: the interplay between the insider and the outsider and the exploration of loneliness. The play received rave reviews and garnered many awards, including a 1981 Obie Award as best Off-Broadway production.
The Dance and the Railroad (1981), which Hwang wrote while studying at the Yale School of Drama, focuses exclusively and evocatively on Chinese history. Family Devotions is a bizarre Southern California domestic farce about confrontation, alienation, and the loss of ethnic awareness. Feeling that he had exhausted his Chinese...
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In the introduction to F.O.B., and Other Plays, Maxine Hong Kingston comments on the authenticity of the idioms that David Henry Hwang uses in his plays. She praises him for depicting so well the sounds of “Chinatown English, the language of childhood and the subconscious, the language of emotion, the language of home.” Hwang’s artistic palette, however, is broader than realism. He uses surrealism, ritual and evocation, and gender manipulation to shock and entertain his audiences as he tears down the walls of racism and creates a new vision of humanity.
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